Asking About Gender: Six Considerations for Youth Work
The purpose of evaluation activities is to assess not just what we are doing and how we are doing it but also who we are serving. This data can help ensure that we are effectively reaching and supporting the young people who most need our programming. In the context of systemic oppression, however, this ‘need’ is overwhelmingly determined by race, sexuality, gender, class, ability, legal status, and other systems through which human difference is organized and wellbeing distributed.
But here’s the catch: the systems of oppression that disproportionately deny wellbeing to some groups also inform the measures we take to address these disproportionate outcomes. This means our programming can perpetrate harm, even in our very efforts to overcome it.
In our work with organizations across the province, we routinely encounter one particular manifestation of this unintentional harm – the questions that programs ask in order to develop a demographic profile of program participants. This might be most evident in the options we offer when asking participants to describe their gender identity.
In partnership with LGBT YouthLine, YouthREX has developed a toolkit – Asking About Gender – that deconstructs the harmful assumptions embedded in the gender question, and how they reflect and reproduce transphobia and other intersection oppressions. The Asking About Gender toolkit also includes a factsheet that provides an inclusive menu of gender options – one that addresses the problems outlined in the example featured above – that you can consider incorporating into your demographic surveys.
As service providers, we need to interrogate and challenge all sources of harm to our participants – including those arising from our own limitations. This toolkit is one small resource to support you in this larger project.
Here are six considerations when attempting to challenge your biases and contest the ways they might be perpetuated in your work:
1. Focus on unlearning.
One problematic assumption embedded in the standard menu of gender options is that there are only two genders. While the concept of two genders might appear to be ‘common sense’, it is not natural or inevitable; rather, it reflects our socialization into the gender binary. Historically and around the world, societies have recognized multiple genders, and have had a multitude of ways for describing a person’s gendered self. What is required of us in approaching this subject matter is not so much to learn about gender diversity but, rather, to unlearn our gender rigidity – to articulate the premises that underpin our dominant understandings of how gender can be inhabited, expressed, and identified, and to question the validity and necessity of those premises. When we unpack these premises, what we find is that they tend to be rich with ideology and sparse on biology or universal truths.
2. Strive for equity (and accuracy).
Revising our demographic surveys to accurately represent the gendered diversity of the youth with whom we work (as well as other measures we take to make our services accessible, safe, and relevant to all those who access them) is not ‘special treatment’. On the contrary, it is an effort to address the systematic under-provision of services to those whose needs and experiences are different from the ‘norm’.
Our goal here is not to exceptionalize but to equalize.
Furthermore, when the options we provide for participants to describe their gender are not in alignment with their actual identifications, we are generating weak and sloppy data. By taking these measures, we are contributing to the strength and rigour of our data, which allows us to know the people we are serving, and, when applied appropriately, enables us to better serve them.
3. Recognize our collective stake.
Acknowledging the diversity of gender, and accounting for it on our demographic surveys, most immediately benefits those who deviate from binary/normative gender (i.e., Two-spirit, gender non-conforming, trans, and non-binary people). But ultimately, this effort benefits all of us. While mainstream gender norms limit us – by locking us into particular roles, expressions, behaviours, and presentations – gender expansiveness gifts everyone with the opportunity to exist beyond the scripts and boundaries that have been imposed on us based on the bodies we were born into.
4. Acknowledge the limitation of boxes.
While it is important for our demographic surveys to reflect our participants, we will never capture the breadth and depth of our participants’ identities through one-word pre-designated categories.
When it comes to knowing, there is no alternative to relationship-building and being responsive to the needs of the people we work with.
5. Keep it up.
The options we offer in our gender menus are important, but, ultimately, this should only be one activity within a broader effort to reduce harm, and more appropriately and relevantly, serve those we are working with. As service providers, this larger project demands ongoing critical self-reflection about the assumptions that are embedded in our work – assumptions that may reflect and reproduce problematic ideas and, as such, restrict the utility and safety of our offerings. Correcting for this requires a constant and consistent commitment to learning about the youth who access our services, so that we can be responsive to them in all of their diversity, gender and otherwise.
6. Don’t take it from us.
As service providers, we are implicitly represented as the ‘experts’ in our work with young people. This doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality, but, rather, how systems of power distribute authority. The truth is that those accessing our services are the experts on their own lives and their own needs. Programming excellence requires a willingness to be informed by those we serve, and, for that, there is no substitute to widespread and ongoing consultation with those we work with.
We hope you will read, share, and discuss the Asking About Gender toolkit as one step towards making your services safer, more accessible, and more responsive to young people.
Join YouthREX and LGBT YouthLine for Asking About Gender: Confronting Assumptions and Challenging Transphobia, a free interactive webinar on Thursday, April 21st (1PM to 2:30PM ET), that will interrogate and challenge how we understand gender and how we engage with gender in our youth work.
YouthREX provides direct support to youth-serving non-profit organizations across the province. If you are looking for support with program design, development or evaluation, please get in touch with a member of our team. You can also access YouthREX’s Framework for Evaluating Youth Wellbeing and our online evaluation toolkit.